By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established National Aviation Day, choosing August 19th as a fitting date since it was the birthday of Orville Wright. On the occasion of this 78th National Aviation Day, here are some of the most interesting things at the National Naval Aviation Museum, the U.S. Navy’s official museum devoted to the history and heritage of aviation in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
Somebody had to be first and in the case of naval aviation, it was Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, who in 1910 received orders to report to the Curtiss Aviation Camp at North Island, California, to begin receiving flight instruction under the tutelage of early aeroplane (that’s what they called them back them) designer Glenn Curtiss. Ellyson was initially designated Navy Air Pilot Number One as shown in this certificate. However, in nautical terms a “pilot” is someone who guides a ship into port, so the designation was soon changed to Naval Aviator.
On loan to the museum courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, the Navy-Curtiss NC-4 bridged the Atlantic before the more famous solo flight by Charles Lindbergh, it just took a little bit longer. The mammoth flying boat and two others like it, the NC-1 and NC-3, excecuted the flight in stages, making their way up the East Coast to Newfoundland before flying over the North Atlantic to the Azores Islands. That’s where two of the airplanes ran into trouble and had to make forced landings. Only the NC-4 made it, ultimately completing the transatlantic crossing in 19 days when it landed in Lisbon Harbor on May 27, 1919. Top speed for the NC-4 was 85 MPH.
NC-4 completed what was one of many epic flights during what has been called the Golden Age of Aviation, an era marked by exploration of the polar ice as well as speed, altitude, and distance records. Some of the giants of aviation gathered for a celebratory dinner to honor a United States Weather Bureau Meteorologist at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City. One enterprising guest collected autographs of attendees on his menu, among them naval aviator and polar explorer Richard Byrd as well as the signatures of none other than Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.
Few museums display an airplane flown by a Medal of Honor recipient. That’s the case with the F3F-2 biplane fighter that was recovered from the depths of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. How did it get there? Marine First Lieutenant Robert Galer ditched the airplane while on approach for landing on board the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV 3) in 1940. Over half a century later, he was on hand when it came ashore at Naval Air Station North Island. When initially told that the museum had found an airplane he crashed, he quipped, “Which one?” Shot down three times during the Battle of Guadalcanal and once during the Korean War, Galer shot down 13 Japanese airplanes during World War II on his way to receiving the nation’s highest award for combat valor.
Of the thousands of airplanes that rolled off assembly lines during the World War II era, relatively few survive that actually flew in combat, let alone were part of three combat actions like SBD-2 Dauntless (Bureau Number 2106). It was parked on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor on the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, and later flew across the Owen Stanly Mountains and attacked Japanese shipping in New Guinea during a raid launched from the carrier Lexington (CV 2) on March 10, 1942. Then came Midway on June 4, 1942,, where in the hands of a Marine crew this airplane attacked Japanese carriers in perhaps the most famous battle in U.S. Navy history, returning with over 200 bullet holes in its fuselage, the patches covering some of them still visible on the restored airplane to this day.
Not surprisingly given his role as the creator of National Aviation Day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first Commander in Chief to fly in an airplane while in office. However, no Chief Executive has made a flight quite like President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003, when an S-3 Viking flew him out to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Designated “Navy 1” for the flight, it was the first and only aircraft to make an arrested landing with the President of the United States on board. Its last flight ended with a landing at Sherman Field behind the National Naval Aviation Museum, becoming a part of the rich history and heritage of American aviation that we celebrate today.
Interested in more naval aviation?
Go visit the museum. Located in Pensecola, Florida, we gaurantee that if you liked this blog, you’ll LOVE their exhibits!
Check out our online WWII naval aviation art exhibit.